In today's big cities, having a car engenders mild pariah status. Then coronavirus screeched into townby Alexis Self / July 31, 2020 / Leave a comment
Getting your first car used to be a big deal, an event up there with life’s other major acquisitions: a job, a house, a spouse. While it might not have had the same significance—nor, one would hope, longevity—as any of those three, it was something most people aspired to. Not anymore.
Today, in big cities at least, having a car engenders mild pariah status and ownership rates have been in steady decline for years, especially among young people. In the 1990s, 80 per cent of people had owned one by 30. Three decades later, this is only true of 45 per cent of the population—and that’s UK-wide, the figures in London are much lower. Most would call this heartening, what with private vehicles and their very unsensual presence—clogging, speeding, honking, idling, choking up our streets—responsible for between 50 and 90 per cent of urban air pollution. But, even prior to its ecocidal impact being a truth universally acknowledged, driving in London had become the trickiest of manoeuvres.
How different things were in the 90s. Back then, everyone seemed to have a motor, and these were more than mere A-to-B machines: they were minor characters in your lives, the settings for many a cherished memory, and many an uncherished one too. A child of divorced parents, I spent accumulated years being ferried back and forth across town.
I remember a litany of vehicles fondly: the banged-up Citroën 2CV, the Volvo 760 Turbo, the bottle-green Mercedes Estate. These were purchased from raffish men known as dealers with whom it seemed obligatory to enjoy a love-hate relationship, not dissimilar to the one you’d end up having with the car, which would inevitably break down—frustration usually accepted with plenty of phlegm and good grace, even on the hard shoulder of the M4. Your car’s crapness, after all, was a part of its charm. Fiction bore this out. Sure, all the heroes drove slick sports cars, but it was the beaters, rust buckets and rattletraps which elicited more tender devotion.
“I’ve been driving in my car… it’s not quite a Jaguar,” so begins Driving in My Car by Madness, the ultimate musical paean to an old banger. This song…